Friday, April 19, 2013

Choosing a New Grill – Part 2: Buying a Charcoal Grill

This Will Be Easy

As a follow-up to sharing some general advice about purchasing a new grill, I am going to greatly simplify the process of selecting a charcoal grill by suggesting that you consider just a single brand: Weber. It's just not in your best interest to purchase something other than one of their products.

I will freely admit that I am totally in the tank for Weber, especially when it comes to charcoal units. Although I like Weber's gas grills too, I'm a little more brand agnostic in that category, so stay tuned for complete objectivity in Part 3 of this series. But for charcoal, your one and only choice should be a Weber because all other makes are abjectly inferior. Period. End of story.

So why Weber? For starters, they practically invented the category by popularizing backyard cooking starting in the 1950s. Weber charcoal grills are also unsurpassed in terms of performance and versatility, allowing you to grill, roast, or smoke. What's more, the original kettle design is a timeless classic.

And speaking of timeless, a properly maintained Weber charcoal grill will last a lifetime. My oldest has been in continuous service since 1985, and it's endured short trips for competitions and remote cook-outs, difficult long hauls being knocked around in the back of a moving truck, being inadvertently dropped (or having stuff dropped on it), and decades of foul weather – yet it still works as well as the day I got it. Sure, it's got a few dents and dings, and I've had to replace a few parts over the course of time, but the thing continues to perform like a champ because it is built like a tank.

If your goal is to purchase an el cheapo grill because you're just going to abandon it for the sake of disposable convenience after a single use in a stadium parking lot or on the beach, then by all means buy a $20 piece of crap from Walmart. Otherwise, simply plan on investing in a Weber. The question, however, is "which one?" I'm going to help you find the answer.

Cooking on the Road

The author's 1993 vintage Weber Jumbo Joe
Now that I have officially locked you into Weber as your preferred brand of charcoal grill, the first thing you'll have to ask yourself is whether you need to go portable or not. If the answer is' yes', then the Smokey Joe family is for you.

Weber offers a pair of units with a 14.5" diameter cooking surface: Smokey Joe Silver and Smokey Joe Gold. The main difference between the two is that the Gold has a nifty handle to carry the grill from your car to the beach.

For larger capacity there's the Jumbo Joe, which offers an 18.5" diameter grate. This unit debuted in the early 1990s, disappeared from the Weber catalog in the 2000s, and then returned a few years ago as the Smokey Joe Platinum. The original Jumbo Joe name was restored in 2012. Anyway, the Jumbo Joe's more spacious cooking surface should be considered if you plan to tailgate or camp with more than three people.

It should be noted that Weber makes a portable unit called the Go Anywhere, but it is an aberration in the Weber line-up that I do not recommend. Trust me, you don't want to bother with it.

Cooking at Home

The big one:
Weber One-Touch 26.75" Gold
In addition to the previously mentioned Smokey Joe family of portable kettle-style grills, Weber markets two families of the more traditional charcoal grills to be used in the backyard: One-Touch and Performer.

As we've already seen with the portable line, Weber uses the parlance Silver, Gold, and Platinum to distinguish between different models. Sometimes this can be confusing because the terminology is applied to multiple grill families.

Adding to the confusion is that a Silver-designated model from one family can actually be more sophisticated than a Gold grill from another line. Believe it or not, there's actually some method to the madness, so I will crack the code in the following grill descriptions:

  • One-Touch – The 18.5" Silver and the 22.5" Silver are the "classic" Weber charcoal grills, and except for the fact that the handles are now made out of glass-reinforced nylon instead of wood, the design hasn't changed for decades. But there are two higher end models worthy of consideration: the 22.5" Gold and the 26.75" Gold. The main difference between the Silver models and the Gold models in the One-Touch line (regardless of size) is that the Gold units have a high-capacity ash catcher that makes it much easier to capture and dump ashes compared to the "blowing in the wind" approach of the Silver models. If you've got the money, then you should go Gold. What's more, if you need an extra large cooking surface, the 26.75" Gold is the only model that offers the largest diameter.
  • Performer – There are three models in this family, and each of them basically consists of the main chassis of a One-Touch 22.5" Gold mounted on a rolling cart with a work surface and various other features. The Performer Silver is the low-end model that simply adds wheels and a swing-up work table. If you're going to spend money on a Performer, you should avoid the Silver (unless you're cramped for space) and consider either the Performer Gold or the Performer Platinum. These latter two models include a larger fixed work surface, charcoal storage container, and removable cook timer. The only difference between the Gold and the Platinum – and it's a big one – is that the Platinum has a built-in gas ignition system. Fueled by a 1-lb. disposable propane tank, a small dedicated burner will light off your charcoal, thereby eliminating the need for a charcoal chimney. I've got to admit that it's a pretty handy feature, and I'm sure you will too.

If you will be an infrequent user, then either the 18.5" Silver or the 22.5" Silver are probably right for you given their affordability. A more avid charcoal griller will definitely want to step up to either the 22.5" Gold or 26.75" Gold, with the choice between the two based on capacity requirements. The most serious charcoal aficionado will want to invest in the Performer, and most likely the Performer Platinum due to its unique gas-assist lighting feature.

Here's a simplified set of steps to reach a decision:

  • If you must go big, then your one and only choice is the 26.75" Gold.
  • If the standard 22.5" size is right for you, then you should strongly consider a model that features the super convenient ash catcher. This means making a choice between the 22.5" Gold or one of the Performer models. And if you're going to step up to the Performer, you won't regret going all in at the Platinum level.
  • If the smaller 18.5" size is more appropriate for your needs, then purchasing the 18.5" Silver seems to be the obvious move, but it's not your only option. You might want to consider a Jumbo Joe that does double duty in your backyard and at remote locations. 

For the record, Weber also sells a monstrosity called the Ranch Kettle. This behemoth has a massive 37.5" diameter grate that provides more than 1,100 square inches of cooking surface. It retails for about $1,300, so you'll need deep pockets as well as a large patio to accommodate it. The unit also has an insatiable appetite for charcoal, so you'd better be prepared to keep a large volume of Kingsford on hand.

Eric from Smoke Dreams BBQ
with his Weber Performer Platinum in brick red
All of the Weber charcoal grills are available in black. But if you are someone who is interested in adding a splash of color to your patio, then you will narrow down your options because only three of the models mentioned above are available in colors other than black. The One-Touch 22.5" Gold and the Performer Gold are available in dark blue and green. The Performer Platinum is available in these same two colors plus brick red (see photo).

Although the grills described above are not officially classified as being in the portable family per se, any of them will do well at your next tailgate party as long as you've got a vehicle that's large enough for transport.

Tip #1 – Assembly

You should never pay to have a retailer assemble your grill. In fact, you shouldn't have them assemble it at all. I'll tell you why.

The folks at Home Depot and Lowe's are very helpful, but their brightly colored aprons don't qualify them as grill assembly experts. You don't want them leaving out the owner's manual, losing a part, configuring something incorrectly, or damaging the unit. Furthermore, a grill that's already been assembled is much more likely to get messed up on the drive home because it becomes a challenge to stow securely in any vehicle other than a truck or van.

These admonitions also extend to the phalanx of pre-assembled grills chained up along the curb outside a typical home improvement store during springtime months. In addition to the previously mentioned problems, you've got a few more because the grill likely has been exposed to the elements, knocked around by careless staff, and groped by countless tire kickers.

Sure, Weber will stand behind any grill purchased at an authorized retailer regardless of who assembles it, but you can avoid a lot of hassle by purchasing a unit that is pristine and unmolested. Simply keep your new grill in its box and only break the factory seal when you're within the peaceful and friendly confines of your garage. Assembly is not that difficult, so you'll take great satisfaction in doing the job yourself.

Tip #2 – Fuel

Be sure to read up about differences in fuels, specifically briquettes vs. lump charcoal. Each variety has its own cooking characteristics that should be taken into consideration for overall use or specific grilling situations. Heck, there are even significant differences between varous brands of lump, so do your homework and experiment to find out what you like the best.

You should also avoid the use of lighter fluid because it can adversely flavor your food. I was a lighter fluid guy for many years. Then one day I came to my senses and purchased a charcoal chimney, and I haven't used a drop of lighter fluid ever since. All it takes is a few sheets of newspaper and a match to get a pile of charcoal going in about 20 to 30 minutes. Easy!

Special Acknowledgement

Certainly there will be people who will gripe about my failure to recommend kamado-style cookers such as the Big Green Egg. BGEs are great, there's no doubt about it. And the large and growing number of loyal followers – the so-called "Eggheads" – is a testament to their quality.

Furthermore, a BGE is pretty versatile, too. It can be used as a grill or a smoker. And with so many different accessories, you can do all sorts of things, including turning it into a pizza oven. For what it's worth, any Weber One-Touch or Performer charcoal grill can also be used as smoker or as pizza oven.

There are a couple of issues that I have with the BGE. The first is that they are costly. The extra large BGE has 452 sq. inches of cooking area and costs around $1,100. In contrast, the Weber One-Touch 26.75" Gold has a 508-sq. inch cooking surface and can be had for only $299. I know this isn't necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison given the particular performance characteristics of a BGE, but facts are facts.

My other BGE complaint has to do with portability. The damn things are heavy, so if you have to move them around (e.g., to a competition), be prepared to exert some effort. But by far the biggest problem is that they can break. The BGE is made out of a ceramic material, so if you're moving it from Point A to Point B and it gets dropped or if something falls on it, you run the risk of it becoming permanently damaged. A useless and expensive heap of rubble is not cool.

If you are fascinated by the Big Green Egg, then by all means shop around – but do your homework. Talk to multiple people to get all points of view, not just the standard chorus of praise from the faithful partisans. Draw your own conclusions before making your investment.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that choosing a charcoal grill means solving an equation with multiple variables: portability, physical size, cooking capacity, operational performance, features, and cost. If you can balance these out to suit your situation, you will choose a very fine grill that will delight you for years to come.

Got questions? Just send me a message and I will gladly respond.

Previous Post: Part 1 – General Considerations
Coming Soon: Part 3 – Buying a Gas Grill

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